Rotax Max Challenge Grand Finals 2014 – Team USA – Championship Saturday
Askew and Rudolph star in main events after Prefinals cancelled by torrential rain
Heading to the track in Valencia this morning, the nine Team USA drivers who had qualified for Championship Saturday at this year’s Rotax Grand Finals knew what lay in front of them. Rain had arrived and would be the order of the day, and they’d need to draw on all their ability and their experience to overcome the challenging conditions. Advancement in the Prefinals would be key, as none of the American stars had been able to qualify in the top-10. Pre-race strategy went out the window after morning warm-up, however, when the rain became much more aggressive, and caused the Junior Max Prefinal to be red-flagged after the opening lap. Event officials put the race on hold to assess the situation and check tabs on the changing conditions of the track. With torrential rain flooding the track and the infield, the final decision was made to cancel the Prefinals and head straight into the main events once the rain has subsided slightly and the track had been improved. This was eventually the case, and racing resumed at noon, local time. For Team USA, who needed to take full advantage of the Prefinal to improve their poor starting positions, they were once again put behind the eight ball.
With the cancellation of Prefinals putting everything on the table, Team USA did not get off to a good start in the first of the four main events, as both Sting Ray Robb and Christian Brooks were involved in early-race incidents that dropped them to the tail of the field. Robb fell to 32nd on the lap two, and Brooks was pushed down to the same position on lap three. At the halfway point, the duo ran 30th and 31st respectively, their Rotax Grand Finals adventure having been relegated to turning laps to get to the checkered. In keeping with their tenacious attitudes, they kept digging all the way to the final flag, with Robb clawing his way back to 27th, while Brooks finished 29th.
Despite thoughts that the rain may be ready to subside, the precipitation came back strongly for the start of the Senior Max final. The opening circuit was hectic, and the aggression was high despite the limited visibility. Team USA’s Oliver Askew was the man on the move early, advancing incredibly from his eighth row starting spot to sixth at the end of the chaotic opening lap. The carnage on lap one resulted in a full course yellow, which allowed Askew to reset his focus. Arscott and Craig were 23rd and 24th, respectively, when the race went back to green on lap four. Askew was now in the lead battle and fought valiantly to push for the win, eventually getting past Canadian Zachary Claman-Demelo for second with six laps to go. However, the grip level was low and the racing was aggressive, and on lap 15 of the 18, Claman-Demelo made a move to the inside to re-take second and pushed wide on exit, ‘moving’ Askew off-track and into the mud. Oliver brought it back on-track, but fell to sixth as a result, and he held that position to the checkered flag. Arscott ran just outside the top-20 for the entire distance and took 22nd in the final tally, while Craig went out on lap 10 and was officially classified in 30th.
The rain had all but stopped for the start of the DD2 Master main event, and Alan Rudolph lined up at the very tail of the field after winning the final transfer position in the Second Chance Qualifier. Rudolph could have put the Prefinal to very good use, but with its cancellation, he needed to get it all done over the 18-lap main event distance. The veteran was masterful in the race, attacking aggressively through the blinding rooster tails on the opening lap to jump from 32nd to 13th, putting himself into a bid for a top-10 finish. Rudolph was steady and methodical in his advance, picking off drivers to arrive in tenth by lap six, before he and Aussie driver Steve Ellery made their way by Kiwi Tiffany Chittenden. Alan would eventually overtake Ellery as well, on lap 13 to sit eighth, and he then tracked down Dutch pilot Dennis Kroes for seventh with just two laps remaining. The final lap would be his quickest, as he made certain to keep his would-be attackers at bay. Following the race, Rudolph was promoted to fifth (provisionally) after two competitors were removed from the final results – landing him his first top-five finish in his three years at the RMCGF. The week was most certainly a rollercoaster for the long-time American superstar, beginning with his exclusion from qualifying and then a tough DNS in the third heat that would have certainly put him in the middle of the grid for the start of the final.
The rain and wet conditions continued for the final race of the day, as Team USA had three drivers on the grid in DD2. The opening lap chaos grabbed another American, as Michael Ilavia saw a very strong week go sour quickly as he got caught up with six other drivers in turn two. Ilavia dropped to 32nd, although he would continue on and fight back to 27th. Gavin Reichelt had an uneventful 18-lap main, running just outside the top-20 for the duration, eventually bringing home a 26th place result. For MAXSpeed and the Team USA squad, the spotlight was on Florida’s Nick Neri. The multi-time US Rotax National Champion started last on the grid and attacked quickly and with precision, advancing to 22nd on the opening circuit, taking over 16th by lap three. Over the next 15 laps, Neri would close on his competitors and pick them off one by one, eventually slipping past Canada’s Jeff Kingsley on the final lap to move into the top-10. It was another stellar run from the young talent.
All in all, Team USA will likely look back on the day’s action with some disappointment, highlighted by three really strong performances. The results logged early in the weekend were not exactly what the team had hoped for, although there were certainly some bright spots, like the consistency of rookie Junior Sting Ray Robb, the youngest driver on the team (by three years!), who ironically, posted the best heat races results of them all. Big runs in the LCQs saved the day to put nine drivers in the line-ups for Championship Saturday, and should the rain not have been so torrential to scuttle the Prefinals, you must expect that Askew, Rudolph and Neri would have been looking at even better finishes. The remaining six drivers could also have improved their starting positions with planned advancement, as opposed to being forced into all-out attacks to make up ground early. But, a race of this level is always a crapshoot. Team USA encountered some incredibly bad luck, and they also had to persevere through some extremely aggressive on-track action and a couple stiff penalties that really hurt four of their drivers. The talent was there, and now more experienced has been added. You can only expect to see an even better showing in 2015.